I have an observation to share with you: the invention of eating meals is the cornerstone of civilisation and all its works.
A bold claim but I’m sure it’s true. As the frequently shamed owner of several children I can tell you that when you are in contact with an environment where you are distracted by something bleating at you, the quality of thoughts really goes down a long way. There is a point at which you are being distracted so frequently that you cannot even remember what you were…umm..Anyway. So, being distracted by the constant bleats of hunger and the need to pick berries, be alert for tiger growls, children falling into streams etc. means you never really come up with anything new. So, hence the invention of mealtimes; once you have mealtimes you start to enter into a rhythm where you do one thing (gather food) then another (sit down and eat) and then another (sleep, with full bellies and empty heads). Once you are down that road, five minutes later Adam Smith turns up with a pin factory and we are all happy.
So what’s the point? That the working environment that we have built in this generation is heading for the hunter-gatherer start of constant alert with IMs and emails taking the place of tiger growls and status update meetings taking the place of passing wolfpacks.. And we can’t think straight when we are out in the rain with tigers after us. So what do we do?
Here’s my idea: stop snacking on ideas and start eating meals.
Need some time to innovate? Then try booking some time to do it and make sure you commit to it. Make a meeting booking and block out the dreaded calendar. When you are in that time, make sure that you don’t do anything else. Don’t answer the phone, don’t answer IM and, my goodness, finally take the blue pill and unplug that email.
Personally, I think that the only way to innovate is without a computer. The computer is just rails for my mind to run along, and personally I just can’t think unless I have a pen in my hand. I like to book a meeting room and sit in it with no blackberry and either alone or with one other person draw pictures of what winning looks like.
If you really do need your computer then I suggest that you get some noise cancelling headphones and/or some J. S. Bach (or Gregorian chants, or whalesong or surf sounds or this excellent stuff: which has melody but no form, try to ignore that it is birthing music) and cancel out those tiger growls.
What you also need is a sign that says “Touch me not!” Wasps have their stripes and you need some too. My own option is the “thinking cap”; when i wear it people know not to talk to me. I used to share a desk with someone who liked to chat and sometimes she didn’t see the hat. However, when I simply didn’t answer she would look up, see the hat and shut up. And actually that worked, I was able to keep focus for the 5 seconds until she realised that I wasn’t going to answer, I couldn’t advance, but equally I didn’t drop any balls (I was a Thread.Sleep but didn’t lose any state…) and could continue from where I left off.
This is really the key: if you want great creativity, you need a flow state and that takes time.
If you think you don’t need to innovate just more execution? Well, maybe that is your current problem, but we will spend our whole lives in the future, we should prepare for it. Make time.